In Canada, the Queen is the Head of State. And, because the Queen (or King) does not actually live in Canada, the Governor-General is the Crown’s representative. In September, Canada will be getting a new Governor-General, Julie Payette. The Governor-General is officially appointed by the Queen but on the advice of the Prime Minister.
In 1952, former diplomat Vincent Massey, of the wealthy farm machinery Massey’s, became the first Governor-General who was born in Canada. Before then, Governors-General were all British, usually from the upper class and well connected in society. The post-1952 appointees have also occasionally been from posher and politically-connected circles, but the emphasis has been more on appointing people who have made a tremendous contribution to Canadian society through their careers and public service. David Johnston, Governor-General since 2010, had a distinguished academic and public service career.
Julie Payette is a computer engineer who did pioneering work with voice-recognition technology. In 1992, she was accepted by the Canadian Space Agency for astronaut training. Payette made two trips to the International Space Station, once in 1999 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and again aboard Endeavor in 2009. Payette is also an accomplished pianist and vocalist. She is fourth woman to be appointed Governor-General and the fifth francophone to occupy the role.
As with any public appointment though, even the representative of the monarch is never free from scrutiny. Past Governors-General have been criticized for their political affiliations or past careers as journalists. Details recently surfaced that when living in Maryland in 2011, Payette hit a woman while driving and she later died in hospital. Later that year, Payette was also charged with assault in an unrelated and unspecified case, but an investigation revealed there was no basis for the charges. They were withdrawn and her criminal record was expunged. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has firmly stood by Payette’s appointment amidst the revelations about her past.
The President of the United States is responsible for many things, both political and ceremonial. In Canada, the Prime Minister does most of the political work and the Governor-General looks after the ceremonial side with a couple of major exceptions. As a representative of the monarch, the Governor-General historically wore a heavily braided ceremonial uniform. Most in recent memory have instead preferred much more subdued and comfortable business attire. Although, as the de-facto Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the Governor General will often wear a military dress uniform (of either the army, navy, or air force) while attending military-related functions. The Governor-General also administers civil honors such as the Order of Canada, literary awards, or military decorations. The role comes with an official residence; Rideau Hall, also known as Government House in Ottawa, and another home inside the walls of the Citadel fortress in Quebec City.
The Governor General performs a few administrative tasks in the Queen’s place. They officially dissolve Parliament and consent for election campaigns to begin. The Queen also swears in new Prime Ministers and their cabinet ministers. The Governor General officially opens a new session of Parliament and reads the speech of what the government plans to accomplish while in office. When Parliament approves legislation, the Governor General signs bills into law on behalf of the Queen.
A Governor-General is usually in office for five years, but the term can be extended. David Johnston’s term was extended because of uncertainty over whether the last federal election would have a clear result. In that situation, the Governor-General has the authority to ask a party or parties to form a government. The contemporary role of Governor General in Canada has remnants of our colonial past, our slow evolution towards independence, and Canada’s aspirations for the future.